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Sophy Buinimasi

MSc in Environmental Leadership, NUI Galway

Sophy is the first Ireland Fellow from Fiji and one of the first recipients of an Ireland-SIDS Fellowship, which is focused on addressing climate change in small island developing states. She received a fellowship in 2020-21 to study for a Master of Science in Environmental Leadership at NUI Galway.

For the past eight years, I have worked for the Fijian Government as a Senior Research Officer with the Ministry of iTaukei (Indigenous) Affairs (MTA). The MTA is mandated to safeguard the best interests of the iTaukei, who have ownership of 92% of all land in Fiji. My role focuses on the development and implementation of policies that will positively impact the lives of the iTaukei. As a research officer, my responsibilities include working with the iTaukei and a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that environmental conservation projects are well-implemented throughout Fiji’s 1,171 villages. These project areas include genetic research (Access Benefit Sharing), natural resource management, biodiversity protection and invasives management, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction. A cross-cutting policy I continue to work on is the development of a contextualised Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) guideline which is integrated for testing into all our current projects. Successful implementation and lessons from these projects enable the formulation of effective policy.

Thanks to Irish Aid, I am enrolled at NUI Galway undertaking the MSc in Environmental Leadership and I am fortunate to be part of a small class of 13, with students from different countries and a range of academic backgrounds. I chose this course because of its relevance and I believe it will also widen my scope and positively impact my profession. For a country like Fiji, with limited means and a young population, dealing with environmental challenges has become an increasing burden. That burden seems certain to worsen as the impacts of climate change become more intense – not only the rising seas and the impacts on our agricultural practices, but also the extreme weather events that pose an ever-present and worsening danger to our people and our infrastructure.

The necessity for environmental leadership is higher than ever in an era of complex and evident environmental and social problems, such as climate change, the pandemic we are currently facing, limited resources, an overwhelming amount information, etc. There is no single solution for environmental problems that can solve the conflicts of diversified community relations. Therefore, environmental leadership development is a priority element for improving the deteriorating environment.

This fellowship (2020/2021) is like no other, with classes, exams and assignments taking place under the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 emergency. Despite these challenges, I have mastered the art of online learning, grown an unexpected enjoyment for reflective journaling, and honed the skills for scientific writing. I have also developed expertise in time management and my analytical skills have improved tremendously.

To get to Galway, I travelled for fifty-eight hours non-stop through five countries during a pandemic. ICOS provided superb assistance, constantly checking up on my status throughout my journey. I am thankful to Irish Aid for having the great foresight to provide the fellows with assistance through ICOS.

A determining factor for choosing NUI was the beauty of Galway. I quickly settled into my daily social-distancing routine thanks to leisurely walks through the Latin Quarter, famous oysters, a pint or two of a Galway Hooker or a Guinness and hearing traditional and contemporary music flood out from pubs and restaurants. From my Irish classmates I learnt of hurling and made sure to watch Limerick win over Waterford in the All-Ireland final. The City of Tribes has the friendliest people, and at the mention of Fiji I am sure to spend a good five minutes talking about rugby and receiving great praise on attack and coaching advice on better defense. This bohemian city inspires me on the daily to take in the breath-taking sights and fuels creative writing and critical thinking. Steve Earle didn't write a song called 'The Mayo Girl', now did he?

As an Ireland Fellow, I will benefit from the many opportunities provided at NUI Galway and from other professionals and organisations here in Ireland that are involved in similar areas of work. I hope to use newly acquired skills to upscale research efforts within the Fijian Government and help formulate and implement policies tailored to suit the iTaukei. Also, I do look forward to the transfer of knowledge with my colleagues and partners to increase efficiency and productivity of our projects and programmes.

Towards the end of my MSc, I will carry out research in fulfilment of the requirements of the course and my focus will be on the co-management of natural resources in Fiji. Co-management is becoming increasingly common in Fiji due to the failure of many top-down approaches and the increase in environmental degradation and exploitation, not only in Fiji but in other parts of the Pacific and third world countries. This research I hope will influence good decision making in Fiji.

Fiji and the Pacific are demonstrating global leadership by working with partners to bring about transformative, scale-able solutions to strengthen resilience and to further draw down our already minimal emissions. I hope to influence change and be part of an effective team of leaders that formulate transformative solutions and investments that helps build greater resilience for Fiji and the Pacific.

As one out of six of the first recipients of the Ireland Fellows Programme – SIDS, I am grateful to be pioneering this once in a lifetime opportunity. Ireland has some of the best universities in the world that will greatly benefit any Fijian who dares to participate.